Issue 206

June 2024

Maycee Barber's journey has gone from prodigy to top contender, and E. Spencer Kyte caught up with her to discover how she overcame setbacks, built her legacy, and is chasing her championship dreams with unwavering determination.

Maycee Barber was 20 years old when the UFC signed her.

A prodigious talent who turned pro 386 days earlier, she pushed her professional record to 5-0 with a third-round stoppage win over Jamie Colleen on the second season of Dana White’s Contender Series, impressing the UFC CEO enough to garner a contract to compete on the biggest stage in the sport.

Anyone who had watched her compete under the LFA banner before knew it was where she would eventually land and was already aware of the lofty goal the Greeley, Colorado native held out for herself.

Barber wanted to become the youngest fighter ever to win a UFC title, which meant eclipsing the record of 23 years and 242 days established by Jon Jones when he defeated Mauricio “Shogun” Rua to claim the light heavyweight title back at UFC 128. She had a countdown clock on her phone that told her precisely how much time she had left to reach her goal, and her nickname, “The Future,” served as both a reminder of her championship ambitions and the overall expectations she and many others had as she embarked on a career competing inside the Octagon.

“I always feel like you’ve got to set big goals, even if they’re not very realistic to other people; I don’t think it matters,” says Barber, now 26 and sporting a 14-2 record as a professional. “I think it gives everyone else a story to follow or be excited about, and I never want to just set a little goal, pass it, and be like, ‘Now what?’ If you set something that is daunting, it gives you that motivation and desire to chase that, and a little bit more pressure.”

Barber didn’t reach her goal. She would have needed to claim the UFC women’s flyweight title by Friday, January 14, 2022, allowing her to shave one day off of Jones’ record.

On that particular day, she was one fight removed from a two-fight losing streak and ACL surgery that halted her initial momentum and set her back a couple of steps in her quest to reach the top of the 125-pound weight class. Given that it was a day ending in “Y,” it’s a safe bet that Barber was in the gym, continuing to add to her tool kit, entering into the early stages of her training camp for an April 2022 clash with Montana De La Rosa that she would win by unanimous decision.

While she had snapped her two-fight slide the fight before, the jury was still out on Barber at that time, and a lot of the people that were on the bandwagon during her first couple years in the UFC had given up their seats, as seems to happen whenever a heralded young star has a couple of missteps.


After earning her contract in the summer of 2018, Barber made her first UFC appearance in her home state of Colorado, facing off with Hannah Cifers on the main card of the promotion’s 25th-anniversary event at Pepsi Center (now Ball Arena) in Denver.

She stopped Cifers two minutes into the second round in her final fight at strawweight. Four months later, she relocated to flyweight and dispatched JJ Aldrich in the second as well, turning a competitive fight into a dominant finish after stinging the veteran with a sharp left hand and burying her under an avalanche of follow-up knees and punches along the fence, becoming the first fighter to finish Aldrich in the process.

As the youngest fighter on the UFC roster at the time, she ventured up to Boston seven months later and blew through Gillian Robertson, using sound defensive wrestling to largely keep the fight standing before cranking up the ferocity on her striking midway through the opening round. Once the first clean shot landed flush and got a reaction, Barber didn’t let off the gas until the referee stepped in and halted the action, giving her a third straight UFC victory, pushing her professional record to 8-0, and setting her up for a step up in competition next time out.

Paired off with Roxanne Modafferi on the UFC 246 pay-per-view fight card at the outset of 2018, Barber was knocking on the door of title contention, and despite giving up heaps of experience to her fellow American, she entered as the biggest betting favorite on the card. A $100 wager for Barber to win would return $112, or $12 profit, and while few punters were attracted to such paltry returns, most anticipated that would be how things played out, but that wasn’t the case.


Modafferi stood her ground and popped the unbeaten prospect with a few clean shots at range early in the opening round before getting the fight to the canvas and keeping it there, methodically working from half-guard to side control and briefly into mount before Barber was able to reverse the position and finish the round in the veteran’s guard.

Seconds into the middle stanza, disaster struck.

As Barber stepped back to avoid a jab from Modafferi, something in her left knee gave out, and she crumpled to the canvas, reflexively grabbing at her knee, and Modafferi chased her to the ground. She spent the rest of the frame with her shoulders stapled to the canvas, earning a solid gash that leaked blood all over her face and shoulder for her troubles, and when she rose to walk back to her corner at the end of the round, she did so with a pronounced limp.

“I thought that fight with Roxanne was gonna be a breeze; I think everyone did,” says Barber, who gutted out the final round on a bad wheel and lost a unanimous decision to Modafferi, her first setback as a professional fighter. 

“I think God had other plans for us, and He wanted me to learn a lot of lessons. I was coming off such a lot of motivation and riding such a high, but if you watch a lot of my fights, I have so much to learn, even still.” 

“Coming in on such a fast pace and fast track, I think it couldn’t have been more perfect for me to learn (those lessons) that early. There was a lot of adversity, a lot of things I had to show.

“Not only that, but having that as a loss was a very bitter moment where not only did I lose, but I can’t even fix it for an entire year; I have to sit out and wait,” adds Barber, a tinge of frustration for how things had to play out still evident in her voice all these years later. “That was probably the only frustrating part because I didn’t view it as a loss, which is not necessarily the best way to look at things, but I didn’t feel terrible about that performance. I feel like I was given a situation, and I handled it, and for me, it showed a lot of heart and that no matter what happens, you’ve got to keep going.

“It was not my most favorite moment in the present time, but now, looking back, I wouldn’t ask for it any other way.”


She was back in the Octagon a little over a year later, taking on Alexa Grasso in the co-main event of UFC 258 behind closed doors at the UFC APEX, and once again landed on the wrong side of the scorecards, with all three judges scoring the fight the same way, 29-28 in favor of Grasso, giving her the first and second rounds.

After a scorching start to her UFC career where her nom de pugilism seemed fitting, and her upside seemed limitless, people started distancing themselves from their “future champion” forecasts, replacing them with questions about Barber’s standing in the division and the way she was preparing started to be asked with greater frequency and volume.

From the early days of her career, Barber bounced around to different gyms, seeking insights and opportunities to train with various coaches and teams.

Matt Pena, who worked with the Miletich Fighting Systems crew back in the day and was in Robbie Lawler’s corner when he claimed the UFC welterweight title, was in Barber’s corner when she earned her contract on the Contender Series.

Marc Montoya from Factory X Muay Thai was the lead voice in her corner through her first three UFC appearances. Duke Roufus, Ben Askren, and Jason Mertlich were there for the fight with Modafferi. Mike Vallee filled that role for her bout with Grasso.

In a sport where athletes traditionally find a coach, find a team, and stick with them, the young American constantly switching things up went against the grain, prompting many to question whether the frequent shifts stifled her development and contributed to her recent lack of success.

"I’ve traveled a lot,” Barber says with a laugh, readying to recall the list of stops she’s made throughout her career. “I started out in Colorado and then I’ve been to New Mexico, Utah, Milwaukee, Sacramento. I’ve been to a lot of different places. I got to go with Demetrious Johnson’s gym out there with Matt Hume. There have been so many different coaches — Matt Pena, Brandon Gibson, Trevor Wittman.

“I’ve worked with everyone, and I feel like everyone has something to offer,” continues the streaking flyweight, who has earned six straight wins to climb into the Top 5 in the divisional rankings. “That’s something I was very fortunate to be able to do; my parents took a lot of time and sacrifices for me.

“Everyone looks at it like, ‘You just jump from gym to gym and learn from one person after the next.’ I view it as every single coach and every single person I’ve been able to train with and learn from has been able to impact my career, and who I am as a fighter so much, so I wouldn’t have it any other way because I feel like that is what has made me the person and the fighter that I am.”


Following the loss to Grasso, Barber opted to take a trip to Sacramento to train with the group at Team Alpha Male for a week.

She stayed there for almost three years.

“When I went out to Sacramento, my intention was to go out there for a week, and after a week of being out there, I loved the energy, I loved the environment, I loved the motivation,” recalled Barber. “After four days, I was like, ‘All my stuff is in a storage unit anyways, so I’m just gonna move here!’

“I booked an extra night at the hotel, and I rented an apartment the next day. I was seven weeks out from fighting Miranda Maverick, and I bought a mattress at Costco and slept on the floor of this apartment for the entire camp. After that, I went and got all my stuff, lived there for two-and-a-half, three years.”

The fight with Maverick got her back into the win column, but it didn’t do much to lessen the questions and criticisms she faced from her two losses. It was an ultra-competitive affair, with Barber landing on the favorable side of a split decision verdict, the second round of the three-round contest serving as the differentiating frame.

While the judges were split in their decision, the MMA media was unanimous, with every individual and outlet submitting a score to the online decision-tracking site, scoring the bout 29-28 for Maverick.

For a certain segment of the fight-loving population, any reference to Barber breaking her losing streak was met with some version of “… but did she really?” and the skepticism about whether “The Future” was the future of the flyweight division continued brewing.

Since then, Barber has established herself as a bona fide contender in the flyweight division, adding five additional wins to her record, including a second-round stoppage victory over Amanda Ribas last summer in Jacksonville and a unanimous decision win over perennial contender Katlyn Cerminara (nee Chookagian) earlier this year at UFC 299.

As is often the case in this sport, it seems like all Barber needed was a little time to figure out who she is and who she wants to be, both as a person and a fighter.


Nothing is more intoxicating in this sport than an undefeated prospect with obvious upside. They’re like catnip for fight fans who are itching to hitch their wagon to the next potential breakout star and eager to be proven right when they forecast greatness for those promising men and women.

There is a tendency with fans and observers to want to see those types of competitors hustle up the divisional ladder with haste, with initial success emboldening boastful claims and grandiose projections about championship reigns and which established stars the ascending talent could “beat right now” if given the opportunity.

But it very rarely works out that way.

Jones is an anomaly, and the reason his record has become the favorite target of every young fighter with championship ambitions is because they all know what a monumental accomplishment it would be to best what right now feels like an unbreakable record.

What usually happens is what happened to Barber:

You touch down on the big stage with a ton of hype and promise, and scores of people line up behind you to sing your praises and declare you a can’t-miss prospect who is sure to claim championship gold in the not-too-distant future. They then double down on those declarations as long as the wins keep rolling in.

But as soon as adversity hits, everyone scatters, no longer sure about anything, even though all the upside that shone through in those early triumphs remains. Losing can weaken the resolve of those who can’t accept it as part of the overall package deal or understand that genuinely great success never comes without first encountering failure.

“She was a young woman, and she’s definitely more of a mature woman and fighter now,” says Montoya, who worked with Barber in the early stages of her UFC career and reconnected with the rising flyweight contender when she was penciled in to face former strawweight titleholder Rose Namajunas in Denver in mid-July before Barber was forced to withdraw from the contest in late June. “Of course she evolved her skills — that’s without being said, it has to happen to stay in the UFC — but I would say mentally, she has really grown a lot.

“She’s become a woman; she’s not 18 anymore. She’s coming into her own, she’s an adult, and all those life things are such a big deal.”

Barber agrees wholeheartedly.

“Oh man, it’s a lot,” she says, chuckling, noting that she’s quite literally grown up in the UFC. “There are so many things I’ve learned, whether it’s good things or bad things. There is just so much when you’re talking about my whole adult life because it’s not just my fighting career —it’s just growing into being an adult.

“There are a lot of lessons in terms of how to handle everything from being a professional athlete, how you carry yourself, how you market yourself, how you handle the pressure, how you handle finances, how you handle everything. I’ve had to learn it all, and also, I’m self-managed, so that’s another part of the learning curve I’ve had to learn.

“It’s been…” adds Barber, pausing to find the right words. “I wouldn’t ask for any other kind of life. I’ve had a very blessed life, and I’ve learned so much.”


For whatever reason, people tend to forget about how tumultuous and life-changing your early 20s can be. At the very least, they never seem to factor it into the equation when judging young talents, even though years upon years of evidence has shown that the select few who can work their way to the top of their respective divisions tend to do so in their late 20s or early 30s, after dealing with some adversity, building some experience, and generally getting life in order as best as possible.

In Barber’s case, it’s almost like because she spoke about breaking Jones’ record and then was unable to do it, folks cast her aside, dismissing her chances of potentially becoming champion and shifting their attention to the likes of Erin Blanchfield or Natalia Silva, another pair of young competitors that have enjoyed tremendous early success in the Octagon while flashing top-end upside.

Ironically, people did the same with Grasso, a highly regarded, undefeated prospect coming out of Invicta FC but fell out of favor with fans and critics when she encountered setbacks and struggles to consistently make the strawweight limit. Her move to flyweight garnered some attention, but no one was in a rush to re-christen her as a contender and potential future champion.

Today, the 30-year-old sits atop the division, brandishing a 5-0-1 record since relocating to the 125-pound weight class while serving as the latest example of a fighter who simply needed time to figure things out before being able to live up to the lofty expectations others held out for them. So just because Barber didn’t get there before the countdown clock on her phone hit zero doesn’t mean that she’s not capable of getting there at some point down the line.

“Maycee and I have talked about her being a world champion even before she ever won her first UFC fight,” says Montoya, who has guided Anthony Smith and Brandon Royval to championship opportunities in the UFC, coached Joe Warren to the Bellator world title, and helped guide Rob Wilkinson to a light heavyweight tournament win in the 2022 PFL season.

“Back then, that’s a lofty goal, but it was an achievable goal. You could see that was an achievable goal — it wasn’t just for fodder and a nice headline; you could tell that she would literally do everything in her power that she could control to go out there and become a world champion.

“One of the things we’ve talked about — and I talk about this with my athletes, not just her — is that you need time and patience to be your most powerful warrior, and she’s an example of that,” continues the highly respected coach. “The time and patience that she has had since the first time I trained her to now is super-valuable. When she was a teenager, her being a world champion, I knew it wasn’t a pipe dream; I knew it was her absolute potential, and she could absolutely make that happen.

“She’s continuing to do that, and she’s sitting on the doorstep of being able to make that a reality and not a dream anymore.”

Make no mistake about it: Barber is, in fact, on the cusp of title contention.

The bout with Namajunas was slated to headline the UFC return to Denver. It would have been the first time since the night of Barber’s debut that the Octagon had touched down in her home state. Had she emerged victorious and pushed her winning streak to seven, the 26-year-old would have been alongside France’s Manon Fiorot on the short list of potential challengers for whoever emerges champion when Grasso and Valentina Shevchenko finally settle their differences later this year. While setting a challenging goal and speaking about it publicly was an example of Barber’s ambition that everyone heard and saw, the drive to challenge herself and push to be the best version of herself motivates her daily.

“I feel like a lot of people are like, ‘I want to be in the UFC! I want to be in the UFC!’” begins the flyweight standout. “Just getting there is good enough, and I never wanted to be someone that is good with good enough.

“I was always taught that good is the enemy of great, and I wanted to be great, so if I settled for good enough, you’re just going to be average. Average amongst elites is crazy, but I don’t want to be that; I want to be at the top. So, for me, it’s what sets you apart? What makes you different?

“The why and everything is…” she adds, once again taking a beat to make sure she expresses exactly what she’s feeling. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get to what I’ve got to get to, and that’s what sets us apart as the top of the top.”


As open as Barber is when discussing her journey in the sport and her ambitions inside and outside the cage, there is one piece of the puzzle she’s opted to keep for herself to this point.

Every fighter has a different “why” — the one thing or set of reasons they opted to pursue a career trading blows with another individual, and they can run the gamut from deeply personal and complex to relatively mundane and straightforward. Barber is cagey when it comes to discussing her why.

“I would say that as an athlete and competitor, my why is probably my greatest strength that I have, and then just heart,” she says when asked about what she views as her greatest strength as a competitor. “I feel like there is nowhere else I would rather be, you know? It’s a really hard thing, and I feel like my mentality…”

She pauses, keen to express her thoughts clearly.

“It’s really hard to break someone that has gone through a lot, and I feel like I’m very fortunate to be doing what I’m doing, and there are a lot of other places I could be. The fact that God gave me the life that He gave me, the opportunities that He’s given me, I feel like there is no way in this world that I would ever want to waste that… and that makes me dangerous!”

The last line comes out amidst a chuckle, offered slightly for laughs and perhaps hoping to evade the follow-up questions she knows are headed her way.

“Let’s not ask that question because that’s a deep question,” she says, laughing, without anything being asked. “I know what question you’re gonna ask. You’re gonna ask something about my why, and I don’t wanna talk about it.

“I feel like that one can go in my book,” she adds, her words still chased by laughter. “We’ll leave it on a cliffhanger.”

She agrees to provide the details at a much later date when we sit down to write her book, and while having questions that remain unanswered — and some that remain unasked, honestly — is challenging, appreciating the way Barber speaks about her career and where she’s at right now is easy.

“It’s very surreal,” Barber admits when asked about being close to reaching her championship goal. “The other day, I got very emotional because I was like, ‘This is a crazy life!’ Fifteen years ago, I did not think I was gonna be in this position. It’s a little overwhelming when you’re like, ’15 years ago, I didn’t know what I would be doing,’ and I had no idea what I was thinking.”

To be fair, 15 years ago, Barber was 11, and no 11-year-old should be expected to know how life is going to play out. She laughs when I point this out to her.

“When I think about it like that, I had no idea this is what God had in store for me,” she says, continuing her thought. “So when you sit down and really think about it, I get very emotional. Not only am I in a position where I can do anything I want right now — I could go and see my family travel to just about anywhere I want to travel to, and that’s pretty incredible to be able to say that.

“I don’t have to sit down and go to a job; it’s amazing! All these things are like — look at where I am! I’m in one of the greatest sports in the world, at the top of the sport, I’m healthy, I’m happy, I have an amazing family; what more could you ask for? This is an opportunity I was given. If God had other plans for me, I don’t think I would be here, so I look at it as this is an opportunity, this is something — I’m not forced to do this. No one is telling me I have to go and do anything.

“I got the opportunity to do this,” she adds. “I don’t have to do this; I get to do this.”

That kind of outlook is uncommon these days, both inside and outside of combat sports, as many struggle with the demands of fans, the constant crush of abuse and horribleness that can come their way via social media, and the general challenges of a career spent performing in front of millions and the expectations that come with it.

In some ways, it’s understandable that being a professional athlete — or actor, musician, or any number of other things legions of folks swear they would do for free — is still a job, and jobs are challenging and demanding.

But Barber is happy to take those challenges and demands in stride in exchange for some of her favorite perks of being a professional fighter.

“I don’t know many people that get to go to the gym every day, be healthy, and chase a dream. I do have a job,” she says. “If my job is to work out and go to the gym in my pajamas every day, hell yes! Part of my job is to get a good night’s sleep; that’s crazy!”

She seems elated to be living the life she dreamed of having for herself, what more could you ask for in a champion?